BlackBerry faces months of uncertainty in market's glare

The absence of a firm buyout plan for BlackBerry extends the period of uncertainty for the Waterloo, Ont., smartphone company.
John Chen has been given a leadership role to turn around BlackBerry after the departure of Thorsten Heins. He says reports of the company's death are 'greatly exaggerated.' (CBC)

The absence of a firm buyout plan for BlackBerry extends the period of uncertainty for the Waterloo, Ont., smartphone company.

On Monday, Fairfax Financial said it was abandoning its plan to pay $4.7 billion or $9 a share for the company, but would back a $1-billion cash infusion while the company restructures.

Fairfax CEO Prem Watsa admitted that the consulting company he worked with on the deal recommended against a buyout.

And although the technology company still has cash on hand, the $1 billion in debentures was meant to reassure investors that the company has a future. But that appeared to fail, because the stock plunged 17 per cent to the $6.50 region on the Nasdaq exchange on Monday.

BlackBerry began restructuring back in August, laying off 4,500 workers, bleeding cash and seeing its once proud brand sullied by the period of uncertainty.

With the continued uncertainty regarding the company's longevity and leadership, we think that the ongoing business will continue to be significantly impaired.- Jefferies analyst Peter  Misek

Now the process is going to be extended and the company is also looking for a new CEO, one with more software experience, according to new executive chairman and interim CEO John Chen.

“We believe that the strategic review froze most of BlackBerry’s business since August,” tech analyst Peter Misek of Jefferies said in a note. “With the continued uncertainty regarding the company's longevity and leadership, we think that the ongoing business will continue to be significantly impaired.”

The problem has been that even loyal customers are unwilling to commit to BlackBerry when it is unsure whether it will remain in the handset business or if it can continue to support its products.

“BlackBerry unfortunately does not get a free pass because it created the smartphone market as we know it,” said tech analyst Carmi Levy.

“It also doesn't get a free pass because it was Canada's technology darling for years. The technology market is brutal. Smartphone consumers if they don't like it today, they're not coming back. There is no room for error.”

In the current restructuring, outgoing CEO Thorsten Heins, who has been ousted from his post, upgraded BlackBerry’s operating system and was attempting to focus on enterprise users.

Who is John Chen?

For Chen, there is an even steeper uphill fight to remake the company after months of losses.

First, he will be looking for new leadership – a new CEO with software experience, indicating that he knows BlackBerry’s best asset is its BBM messaging system.

But he has told analysts he does not intend to abandon the handset market, possibly because of the huge user base outside of North America. BlackBerry now has less than one per cent of handset sales, far behind Apply and Samsung, which dominate the market.

An engineer, educated at Brown University in electrical engineering and at the California Institute of Technology, Chen comes to BlackBerry from Silver Lake, a private equity firm with a technology focus. He is also a board member at Wells Fargo and Walt Disney Co.

He is credited with turning around Sybase, a money-loser when he became CEO in 1998. He foresaw the coming growth in mobile communications and positioned the company to sell mobile business services. Sybase was sold to SAP in 2010.

BlackBerry to remain listed

He’ll need lots of insight into the next mobile revolution to put BlackBerry ahead of the game again. And Chen will have to make his move, expected to result in more poor results for another three quarters, in the full view of the markets as BlackBerry remains a listed company.

BlackBerry recently booked a second-quarter loss of $965 million US on the writedown of its latest handset, the BlackBerry Z10 touchscreen. Another $400 million US in charges will come before the end of May 2014, associated with the cost of laying off 4,500 employees, reworking of its smartphone lineup and changes to the company's operations.

"Other potential bidders have been inside the tent, nobody liked what they saw. Why should we?" wrote National Bank analyst Kris Thompson in a note to investors.

"Investors should expect very poor operating results in the coming quarters [as well as] a declining subscriber base, falling shipments, enterprise defections, market share loss, etc."

Many analysts are talking about the "breakup value" of the company, but not everyone wants to rain on BlackBerry’s parade.

Tech analyst Ross Healy thinks BlackBerry is undervalued at $6.50 a share

“What does BlackBerry have going for it? What they have going for it today is a global network of the safest, the most secure messaging systems in the U.S. Department of Defence and all similar organizations globally and that is worth – it's hard to know what it’s worth,” he told CBC News.

In the meantime, the smartphone company can expect an extended period of uncertainty.

With files from The Canadian Press


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?